The art of student curation
Harpur class members showcase exhibits at Binghamton University Art Museum
Picture this: You have access to a university’s entire art collection. You can pick the pieces that speak to you, find a common thread and build your own exhibit. What would it look like?
This was the assignment given to students by Associate Professor Pamela Smart in her spring semester art history class, titled Museums and the Art of Exhibition. The students split into three groups, working with alumni, local collectors and Binghamton University Art Museum Director Diane Butler, to research and mount exhibitions in the Nancy J. Powell Lower Galleries of the museum.
Undergraduates and graduate students have curated eight exhibits in the museum since spring 2017.
The class offers an opportunity to take art viewership to a new level through a hands-on experience in a field that typically advises “do not touch.” It’s part of Butler’s ongoing effort to encourage a relationship between students and the art in the museum’s collection.
“Art shouldn’t just be understood by art historians and explained to others,” Butler says. “Everyone brings their own baggage, their own preferences, their own experiences to seeing artwork.
“In an art museum, we want to show how objects have special significance to different people, not just show pretty things.”
The three exhibits that grew out of Smart’s class and were displayed in the gallery were Peter Guttman: Collection as Self-Portrait; Collectors as Donors: Understanding the Landscapes of Collecting; and Romanticized Recollections: Aesthetics of Corrupted Childhood.
“In various ways, we were working with the value of a collection,” Smart says. “The idea was to show that a university art museum’s collection could be mobilized in a range of different ways.”
The class projects
Students found inspiration in the collections of two alumni: the robust object collection of travel writer and photographer Peter Guttman ‘76 and a Joan Miró painting donated to the museum by Stacy Newman Kandel ‘99.
To demonstrate Guttman’s Collection as Self Portrait, student curators had a photograph of Guttman’s living room enlarged and printed on a special paper that was mounted on the walls, floor-to-ceiling, in a small room in the gallery - all designed to make observers feel they are in Guttman’s living room, among his personal collection of art and artifacts. A Walter Benjamin quote outside the room read, “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” The students’ exhibition coincided with an exhibition of Guttman’s photography in the main gallery.
For the Collectors as Donors exhibit, students worked with Kandel and her contribution of the Miró, along with pieces donated by local art collectors Gil and Deborah Williams.
The choices of artwork allowed an exploration of two different perspectives on collecting and donating. Pieces were selected and contrasted with each other on opposite walls to explore the relationship between color, space and line between them.
The largest exhibit, Romanticized Recollections, included paintings, prints and photographs from the museum’s collection along with objects from the student curators’ own childhoods, invoking a theme of nostalgia.
Zuzu Boomer-Knapp ‘18 says the team hoped that people would look at the personal touches included in the exhibit, such as the handwritten labels and old toys, and draw connections to their own memories.
“The most rewarding aspect of the whole process was the museum opening. Seeing all of our hard work come together and watching people engage with our exhibit was such an exciting moment for all of us,” Boomer-Knapp says. “This was a project we had worked on all semester, so we were all super proud to share it with our friends and families.”
Smart says it’s thrilling to watch students engage with the University’s art, and also that it’s not uncommon for her to hear former student-curators reflect on how much that hands-on, high-impact experience meant to them.
“It’s a very powerful of way of learning that’s not just about what kind of understandings you’re able to develop, it’s also how it sticks with you,” she says.
Fall 2017 exhibits included Making Wood Engravings with Lynd Ward, curated by Christina Rose ‘17; French Prints: 16th-18th Centuries, curated by seniors Marisa Davila and Michael Morganti; and Issues in Accessioning Pre-Hispanic Objects, curated by Fernando Flores, a doctoral student in anthropology.
Ward was a prolific 20th century artist. Because Rose studied printmaking as an undergraduate, she was able use an artist’s perspective to unravel Ward’s work. The exhibit included prints, paintings and books by Ward.
“In general, I think it’s really important for art historians to learn about the artist’s process,” Rose says. “My part was putting in, ‘This is what a wood engraving is. This is how it’s different from a woodcut. These are the tools, and that’s what they do,’ which is harder to do if you don’t have the physical experience of working with printmaking.”
Rose’s exhibit was exceptional because she included the “proofs,” or rough drafts, of Ward’s prints.
“We had the different proofs, and we knew we wanted to put them in because it’s so rare to have everything from the sketch to the finished product,” she says. “[Butler] was really excited because prints aren’t usually the most prominent in museum collections.”
The French Prints exhibit focused on the cultural aspects of printmaking from 16th- to 18th-century France. Davila, an art history major, was in charge of curating the exhibit, with help from Morganti, who acted as her translator. A native French speaker and geography major, he soon brought his own perspective to the project with the inclusion of vintage maps.
Eager to use multiple sources, Davila and Morganti borrowed from the University’s rare books collection to supplement their use of portraits and maps from the museum’s archives.
“I was able to put in what I wanted to say about the art rather than have to read it from somebody else. I could finally give my perspective,” Davila says. “That was really rewarding.”
Flores, a specialist in ancient Ecuadorian and Peruvian cultures, worked to identify and authenticate a collection of indigenous South and Central American objects given to the museum.
“We were running into ideas about the lives that those pieces have before they come into a collection. We were dealing with issues like artifacts coming from weird sources,” Flores says. “For example, there was some evidence of trafficking with the objects.”
Flores and Butler decided to curate an exhibit based on the issue of looting and trafficking as a dilemma that museums face.
The exhibit included a collection of objects that represent some of the issues museums face in “accessioning,” or identifying and cataloging pieces. Objects included a trafficked textile piece, a ceramic vase and a statue head of questionable authenticity.
Butler now needs to determine which should be accessioned, which are fakes and which could possibly be returned.
“What we can show is that museums, not only in the United States but also worldwide, have to deal with these issues - how their pieces get here, how companies or auction centers will sell objects with nonspecific backgrounds that are probably fake,” Flores says. “In one way or another, they ended up at the museum.”